Yu Fei’an’s (1888–1959) compendia of bird paintings are equally compendia of colors. The switch from dove to woodpecker in his Gongbi huaniao xuanji (Selection of fine-line bird-and-flower paintings; 1959) is a switch from thinnest gray to the fattest red. Yu linked such explorations into color to ancient ink paintings and to the silvery browns and matte green threads of embroideries. After all, from the establishment of the socialist People’s Republic of China in 1949, it was politically expedient to position ink painting as more than a feudal bourgeois practice. The folk—represented by the craft of embroidery—mattered. The materiality of Yu’s colors matched the materiality of the socialist revolution.
There is more to Yu Fei’an’s colors, though. To a measured extent, Yu pursued seeing in a naked way on its own merits, so that a pigeon could be rendered as the bird itself, a creature occupying space, as did the ink brush composed of a bamboo tube and animal hair in his hand, or the thick sheet of paper spread before him as a painting surface. For instance, Yu dedicated himself for an entire year to the project of sketching pigeons on the streets of Beijing, annotating his pictures with descriptive language from ornithology. He sat in bitter wind and dust to capture the light on pigeon wings and the angle of the bodies as the birds launched themselves into the air. He labored at achieving minute fidelity in his use of color. His pictures and notes were published serially in the Beijing Chenbao (Morning Post), where he worked as a reporter, and then in 1928 as
Color-coded bird physiognomy was enthusiastically promoted by bird watchers and scientists. What made their perceptual practice especially distinctive as
An old teacher of
His salient points: a Chinese language teacher proposes that birds call their own names; people hear those names differently, depending on where they are from; documentation of bird call and name could be recorded and mapped—especially when heard as Chinese—onto the new linguistic boundaries of the nation represented through the alphabet in the Wade-Giles system of romanization. The half-hidden color of the bird, then, is made visible by its call; its call is made legible within the same “universal” alphabetic language system used to record the Chinese language.
In sum, Yu’s bird paintings embody political rhetoric about the socialist nation: through